Ferguson protests see thinner, calmer crowds Friday night

Officials say the situation is improving in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager by a white police officer more than two weeks ago. (Reuters)

FERGUSON, Mo. — On West Florissant Ave., the epicenter of volatile nighttime protests that had come in the wake the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting, crowds were thinner and calmer Friday night, and the atmosphere had lost much of its edge. Police, at the ready with riot shields just days earlier, were now about 500 feet off the main commercial strip, sitting against buildings, leaning against their cars or chatting with one another.

The main street was cut off to most traffic, but gone were the massive protests that triggered barrages of tear gas and rubber bullets from the police. On this night, around 9 p.m., a group of 30 reversed up and down the street, their familiar chant — “Hands up, don’t shoot” — audible only from within about 50 feet away. Meantime, a crew of clergy pumped church music from speakers on the sidewalk; gospel hymns carried across the street.

“We’re trying to change the atmosphere, change the environment,” said Tremaine Combs, a pastor at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, in St. Charles, whose group brought the speaker system. “I think the rage is dissipating. I think some of the anger and frustration is still there, and understandably so. But not the rage.”

There were several hundred people in the quarter-mile block of West Florissant, but most were casually organized into little groups. Kids played in a parking lot. Friends drank beer from tall cans. A few sat on lawn chairs, waiting for something to happen.

“The attention seekers, they’ve all gone home, thank the lord,” said Sharon Cowan, a resident of Northwoods, just south of Ferguson.

A local church of God in Christ brought its band to West Florissant on Friday night and soulful instrumental Gospel music filled the block which has hosted thousands of protesters over the last several days. The music played to a sparse crowd. Drivers rolled down the street slowly, which was open to traffic. Police manned a few checkpoints but largely hung back. A crowd of a dozen people marched in a circle chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Across the street about 75 protesters marched animatedly, yelling “Mike Brown.” Most were young people.

In the one moment when tensions did flare, there was still a degree of civility. Several men, frustrated about personal disputes with the police, stopped one Missouri State Highway Patrol officer as he walked down the street. Media members and other onlookers formed a half-circle around the men, listening to the discussion.

“Yo, yesterday I was walking with somebody and I got arrested for walking across a bridge for a failure to disperse,” one young man in an orange shirt said to the officer. “When I’m walking away from the scene, how is that a failure to disperse?”

“Had you been told to leave?” the officer said.

Another interrupted, then several others, stories piling up, and eventually the officer continued down the street.

“See, he’s walking away,” one of the men said. “They can’t deal with that.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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